Below is the text of the speech made by Sir Michael Hicks-Beach in the House of Commons on 12 May 1884.
Notwithstanding the remarks that have just fallen from the two hon. Members opposite, and certain symptoms of impatience which other hon. Members who sit on that side of the House have shown on the occasion of previous debates this Session on Egyptian affairs, it will, I think, be generally admitted that the subject which I am about to bring under the notice of the House is one of urgency, that it is one on which there is a strong feeling and a deep interest in the country, and that the terms of my Motion present a clear and definite issue to the House of Commons. I do not now intend to question the decision of Her Majesty’s Government to evacuate the Soudan, or the means by which they proposed to carry that decision into effect. I take their own policy in this matter as it was described by them to the House in February last, and I propose to address myself to the question— How have the Government carried out, not our policy, but their own policy, and what is their conduct in the present condition of affairs in the Soudan? I hope that before I sit down I shall be able to show some cause for the regret which I ask this House to express—
“That the course pursued by Her Majesty’s Government has not tended to promote the success of General Gordon’s Mission, and that even such steps as may be necessary to secure his personal safety are still delayed.”
When Her Majesty’s Government, in the celebrated despatch of the 4th of January last, shattered the Egyptian Government and compelled them to abandon the Soudan, they were at once confronted with the serious danger which menaced the large number of Egyptians, military and civil, who remained in the Soudan. It was impossible that this country could avoid a sense of responsibility for the safety of those people, because that danger was mainly due to the calamity which overtook the unfortunate expedition of General Hicks, an expedition which was permitted by Her Majesty’s Government, although they had the power of preventing it. Therefore it was, I suppose, that the Government repeatedly suggested to the Egyptian Government the employment of General Gordon to conduct the evacuation of the Soudan. At last the Egyptian Government consented to the employment of that officer with full civil and military powers to conduct the evacuation. It is not too much to say that no officer over left this country charged with a more important or more difficult mission, or possessing, to all appearance, more perfect freedom as to the means by which he should carry out that Mission. It was a material element in the satisfaction with which the country received the news of General Gordon’s appointment that he was to have, as it has been described, “a free hand,” and was not to be interfered with by Her Majesty’s Government, who had already so lamentably failed in their conduct of affairs in that part of the world. I will venture to add that this interpretation of the appointment of General Gordon had no slight influence in saving the Government from that Vote of Censure which my right hon. Friend near me proposed in February last. What was the policy that General Gordon was appointed to carry out? It was shortly described by the Prime Minister as “rescue and retire.” How was General Gordon to carry out that policy? Undoubtedly by pacific means —if that was in any way possible—but that is a very material qualification. No one could have desired or have tried more earnestly than General Gordon to carry out the mission with which he was charged by pacific means.
The keystone of his plan was essentially of a pacific character. It was to establish some kind of local government which should be more agreeable to the populations of the Soudan than the Egyptian Government from which he was sent to deliver them, and which, when established, might be able to conduct affairs, at least for a time, during which the evacuation of the country by the whole civil and military Egyptian administration might take place. Well, various suggestions were made by him to Her Majesty’s Government in connection with his mission. One after another those suggestions were negatived, and some were negatived precisely at the very moment when Her Majesty’s Government were sheltering themselves from the indignation which was felt in the country at the abandonment of the garrison of Sinkat, on the plea that they were compelled not to undertake an expedition that could by any possibility be contrary to General Gordon’s wishes, or that would interfere with the success of his pacific mission. What were those suggestions? In the first place, it is perfectly clear that from the very first General Gordon never desired to go to the Soudan as an official of the Egyptian Government. What he wanted to do was to appear in the Soudan from the side of Suakin as a deliverer of the people from the Egyptian Government. Well, Her Majesty’s Government sent him to Cairo. They sent him from Cairo as an Egyptian Governor General over the Soudan. He proposed, again, to undertake the hazardous task of an interview with the Mahdi in order to exercise upon that individual his wonderful personal influence. Why, Sir, a braver proposal than that was never made by an Englishman. General Gordon is a man who does not consider his own safety or his own life as worth a moment’s notice when the interest of his country is involved; but Her Majesty’s Government negatived that proposal also.
Again, he wanted to commence his operations by first dealing with the Equatorial Provinces. He got a peremptory command not to go south of Khartoum. And lastly, after full consideration of the difficulties which attended his original proposal to establish a certain number of local Sultans throughout the country, he recommended to the Government the appointment of Zebehr Pasha as Governor of Khartoum. I do not wish for a moment to underrate the objections to that proposal. It ran counter to one of the strongest sentiments of this country. It was objected to by persons entertaining all kinds of political opinions—by some of the leading Members of the Party to which I myself belong; but I must say that I think that if the very strong arguments which appear in the Papers which have been published had been before the country at the time this proposal was made there would have been, at least, a considerable feeling in the opposite direction. I do not wish, however, to underrate the force of popular sentiment, which in such matters is inaccessible to reason. I am not blaming Her Majesty’s Government for declining to assent to the appointment of Zebehr Pasha, or to any of the other proposals to which I have referred. But it should be remembered that those proposals came to them recommended in no ordinary way. The appointment of Zebehr Pasha was recommended by Sir Evelyn Baring, the trusted Adviser of Her Majesty’s Government in Egypt, as well as by General Gordon. Now, what was the Prime Minister’s own opinion of General Gordon? On the 12th of February he told the House that—
“General Gordon is no common man… It is no exaggeration to say that he is a hero. It is no exaggeration to say that he is a Christian hero.…that in his dealings with Oriental people he is also a genius; that he has the faculty of influence or command brought about by moral means, for no man in the House hates the unnecessary resort to blood more than General Gordon.”—(3 Hansard,  722.)
This was the man who recommended the appointment of Zebehr Pasha. In seconding that recommendation, Sir Evelyn Baring gave a remarkable hint to Her Majesty’s Government. He evidently had in his own mind the past history of their Egyptian policy; and he said to them that if they were unwilling to assume any responsibility in the matter they might give full liberty of action to General Gordon to do what seemed best. Well, Sir, with their usual inconsistency, Her Majesty’s Government, having promised a free baud to General Gordon, thought that, not only on the other points to which I have referred, but even in this instance, they were obliged to interfere with him. After long hesitation—indeed, so long that a military demonstration had to be recommended as well as the appointment of Zebehr Pasha—they finally declined the proposal. Now, I have admitted most fully the strength of the objections to it, and I wish to give Her Majesty’s Government the full benefit of their arguments. Let us admit, for the sake of argument, that they were right in their decision. But that decision, imposed upon Her Majesty’s Government an enormous responsibility. The appointment of Zebehr Pasha was recommended by the authorities I have quoted as the essential means for establishing that temporary local government without which the peaceful evacuation of the Soudan was impossible. Her Majesty’s Government felt it right to negative that proposal. If they thought it right to do so, they ought to have accepted any alternative proposal that was made, or to have made some other proposal themselves to carry out their policy.
Sir, they did neither of these things; but what they did was something even worse than inaction. While they were insisting upon a pacific policy in one part of the Soudan, and negativing the plans by which alone that policy could be carried out, they went to war in another part, and by those military operations they effectually destroyed any chance which General Gordon might have had of carrying out the policy he was sent to accomplish by the pacific means which they themselves desired. What did General Gordon say when he heard of their refusal to appoint Zebehr Pasha? On the 26th of February he telegraphed to Her Majesty’s Government as follows: —
“Telegram of the 23rd February received respecting Zebehr. That settles question for me. I cannot suggest any other.”
You throw upon your Christian hero, who is averse from the unnecessary shedding of blood, the necessity of suggesting military action in order to carry out your own policy—
“When evacuation is carried out, Mahdi will come down here, and, by agents, will not let Egypt be quiet. Of course, my duty is evacuation, and the best I can for establishing a quiet Government. The first I hope to accomplish. The second is a more difficult task, and concerns Egypt more than me. If Egypt is to be quiet, Mahdi must be smashed up.… Remember that once Khartoum belongs to Mahdi the task will be far more difficult; yet you will, for safety of Egypt, execute it. If you decide on smashing Mahdi, then send up another £100,000 and send up 200 Indian troops to Wady-Halfa, and send officer up to Dongola under pretence to look out quarters for troops. Leave Suakin and Massowah alone.”—[Egypt, No. 12 (1884), p. 115.]
Well, now, that was his suggestion. I suppose we shall be told that any such suggestion was beyond the scope of his mission. How is that? The Prime Minister, on the 3rd of May, stated that General Gordon’s mission involved the use only of pacific means. I challenge that statement altogether. I maintain that General Gordon’s mission contemplated the use of pacific means; but it was perfectly clear, from the very beginning, both to General Gordon and to Her Majesty’s Government, that pacific means might be insufficient, and that a resort to force might be required. Now, what was the opinion of Her Majesty’s Government themselves on the 4th of January last? In that despatch directing the evacuation of the Soudan, Sir Evelyn Baring was directed to urge on the Khedive that all military operations in the Soudan, excepting those for the rescue of the outlying garrisons, should cease—except on the ports of the Red Sea, where assistance could be afforded by Her Majesty’s Naval Forces. There- fore, at that time, they thought that the Egyptian Government might be compelled to employ force in rescuing the outlying garrisons in the Soudan. What was General Gordon’s opinion after his appointment? In the Memorandum of the 1st of February, written by him before his arrival in Egypt, he examined the proposal to transfer the lands to the local Sultans, and states his opinion that they will not accept the supremacy of the Mahdi—
“If this is agreed to, and my supposition correct as to their action, there can be but little doubt that, as far as he is able, the Mahdi will endeavour to assert his rule over them, and will be opposed to any evacuation of the Government employés and troops.… What should he done should the Mahdi’s adherents attack the evacuating columns? It cannot he supposed that these are to offer no resistance; and if, in resisting, they should obtain a success, it would be but reasonable to allow them to follow up the Mahdi to such a position as would insure their future safe march…. Paragraph 1 fixes irrevocably the decision of the Government— namely, to evacuate the territory, and, of course, as far as possible, involves the avoidance of any fighting…. I will carry out the evacuation as far as possible, according to their wish, to the best of my ability, and with avoidance, as far as possible, of all fighting. I would, however, hope that Her Majesty’s Government will give me their support and consideration should I be unable to fulfil all their expectations.”—[Egypt, No. 7 (1884), p. 2.]
Sir, I should like to know what moaning Her Majesty’s Government attached to the words “support and consideration” when they received that despatch? Did they really suppose the position to be that General Gordon would only be allowed to use those Egyptian troops who had already suffered so terribly at the hands of the Natives of the Soudan, and that if he should, as would surely not be unlikely, incur defeat, the Government were not to be liable to aid Mm? Is it possible that Her Majesty’s ‘Government can have saved themselves by sending General Gordon into danger with the understanding that when he got into danger from which he could not escape they were not to save him? Well, but that Memorandum was received, was considered, and was accepted by Her Majesty’s Government as embodying the means by which General Gordon should carry out their policy. More than that, they knew that he had been appointed as Governor General of the Soudan with full civil and military powers; they knew that in the Firman appointing him he was directly authorised to retain the Egyptian troops in the Soudan as long as he liked, and to regulate the time and manner of the evacuation in the mode which seemed to him to be best and most politic. They knew all this; and on the 12th of February what did the Prime Minister say to the House on the subject of General Gordon’s plan? He said—
“At Cairo General Gordon formed his plan. …. It was evidently a well-reasoned and considered plan: it was entirely pacific in its basis; it proceeded on the belief—a belief which would have been fanatical or presumptuous in my case, or in the case of most of those in this House, but which in the case of General Gordon, with his experience and gifts, was, I believe, neither the one nor the other— not that he certainly must, but that he fairly might hope to, exercise a strong pacific influence by going to the right persons in the Soudan; and it was his desire, quite as much as ours, that this should be done without any resort whatever to violent means…He went for the double purpose of evacuating the country by the extrication of the Egyptian garrisons, and of reconstituting it by giving back to those Chiefs their ancestral powers, which had been withdrawn or suspended during the period of the Egyptian Government…He had in view the withdrawal from the country of no less than 29,000 persons paying the military service to Egypt. The House will see how vast was the trust placed in the hands of this remarkable person. We cannot exaggerate the importance we attach to it. We were resolved to do nothing which should interfere with this great pacific scheme, the only scheme which promised a satisfactory solution of the Soudanese difficulty, by at once extricating the garrisons and reconstituting the country upon its old basis and its local privileges.”—(3 Hansard,  724–5.)
Admirable resolutions these, if they could only have been carried out. Well, on the 13th of February arrived the Memorandum of General Gordon containing a scheme for organizing the well-disposed tribes of the Soudan against the pillaging tribes, with the idea of “forming the firm Conservative Soudanese Government which I believe Her Majesty’s Government have in view,” which obviously would be likely to lead to fighting. I am bound to say that if Her Majesty’s Government wanted to form a Conservative Government nearer home than the Soudan, they have taken the very best means of doing so. The right hon. Gentleman again addressed the House in reply to the Motion of the hon. Baronet the Member for Carlisle (Sir Wilfrid Lawson); but he did not say a word qualifying those expressions of confidence in General Gordon and the acceptance of his plans which he had before stated to the House. On the 14th of February the President of the Local Government Board addressed the House. He said—
“Our views with regard to the evacuation of the Soudan are General Gordon’s views as well as our own.”—(Ibid., 957.)
On the 18th Lord Granville stated in “another place” that the confidence of the Government in General Gordon was rather increasing than diminishing. Well, to my mind, these documents and statements conclusively prove that Her Majesty’s Government in the middle of February fully understood that General Gordon’s mission might very possibly involve fighting, and that, so understanding it, they accepted it. Yet now what do they say? That it was not in contemplation that the duties assigned to General Gordon should be of a nature that would require the despatch of a British Expedition to the Soudan. [Ministerial cheers.] Well, if those hon. Gentlemen who cheered that statement can reconcile it with the facts I have quoted, I shall be glad to hear them do it. That is not all. General Gordon is now openly accused of promoting a policy not of defence or of rescue, but of conquest. What have Her Majesty’s Government said in their telegram of the 23rd of April? They accuse him distinctly of a desire to undertake military operations beyond the scope of his mission, and at variance with the pacific policy of evacuating the Soudan. I will venture to say that the most malicious libeller never coined a more unfair or more ungenerous accusation against a public servant than that which these grateful employers have given currency to against General Gordon. Let General Gordon speak for himself.
Do hon. Members recollect the statement which appeared in The Times of the 10th of March coming direct from him? What did General Gordon there say? That he was dead against the sending of any British Expedition to reconquer the Soudan; that it was unnecessary; that he would not have a single life lost; that it was his firm conviction that none would be lost by the plan that he proposed, while our honour would be saved; that he liked the people who were in rebellion as well as he did those who were not; and he added—
“I thank God that, as far as I am concerned, no man has gone before his Maker prematurely through me.”
Will the verdict of history on these transactions acquit Her Majesty’s Government of the blood guiltiness which General Gordon disclaimed? Well, Her Majesty’s Government, having driven General Gordon to make this proposal of smashing the Mahdi, negatived it. But, as I have said, they did something worse; they deprived him of any chance of carrying out pacifically the commission with which they had intrusted him by their own military operations in the Eastern Soudan. What was General Gordon’s opinion upon those operations? It is perfectly clear from these Papers that he never approved of them. On a memorable Saturday the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) asked this House to express its opinion that no reason had been shown for those military operations. Sir, I spoke in favour of that Motion, and I supported it by my vote. And why did I support it? I said plainly that, unless Her Majesty’s Government intended that some result in the way of material assistance to General Gordon should follow from those operations, they were unjustifiable. No such result did follow; and I never gave a vote in this House to which I look back with more satisfaction than the vote that I gave in support of that Motion. I have said that General Gordon never wanted you to undertake those operations. When you consulted him, he gave up the garrisons of Sinkat and Tokar as lost; he said that he had not the least apprehension for Khartoum or Berber being in jeopardy from events at Suakin; and that the forces which defeated General Baker would remain in their tribal limits. Her Majesty’s Government were very grateful for that message; and on the 12th of February they sent their thanks to him for this expression of opinion, which, they said, “filled them with increased confidence in him.” But having done so, of course they proceeded to act in direct opposition to his views. A little later he told them that—
“As to Tokar and Sinkat, you can do nothing except by proclaiming that Chiefs of tribes should come to Khartoum to the Meglis (council) of Notables, when the independence of the Soudan will be decided.”
And on the 23rd of February he telegraphs—
“I think if Tokar has fallen Her Majesty’s Government had hotter he quiet, as I see no advantage to he now gained by any action on their part; let events work themselves out. Fall of Tokar will not affect in the least state of affairs here.”—[Egypt, No. 12 (1884), p. 97.]
Of course, the Government were not quiet. They undertook those military operations under General Graham which resulted in the loss of many valuable English lives and the massacre of thousands of brave Arabs, but in no permanent good whatever; while, on the other hand, they tended greatly to weaken General Gordon’s power of peaceful negotiation. General Gordon naturally supposed, on hearing of the victories of General Graham, that as the Government had vetoed his proposals for carrying out his pacific mission, and had themselves undertaken military operations in the Soudan, they would take care that his difficult and arduous task should in some way benefit from the victories that had been achieved. He did not know Her Majesty’s Government. They can undertake costly and perilous expeditions, but only after the object of those expeditions has been hopelessly sacrificed. He recommended again that a few troops should be sent to Wady Halfa and Dongola, adding that General Graham’s victory, if followed up by an advance of two squadrons of Cavalry to Berber, would settle the question of Khartoum, for the people between there and Berber would not think of rising. Now, what did Her Majesty’s Government know of his position at that time? On the 13th of March they heard from him that—
“There was no probability of the people rallying round him, or of paying any attention to his Proclamation.”—[Ibid., p. 161.]
He told them that if they would not appoint Zebehr Pasha or send British troops to Berber it was no use holding on to Khartoum; for it was impossible for him to help the other garrisons, and he would only be sacrificing the whole of the troops and employés there. He suggested that he should be instructed to evacuate Khartoum, retreating to Berber, and sacrificing everything except Berber and Dongola. He asked for a prompt reply; but he was asking for that which is an impossibility to Her Majesty’s Government. In a few days the opportunity was lost. He went on to say that he would resign his commission and start for the Equator. He added these remarkable words—
“If I could have given any hope to the people as to the future Government, probably things might have been better. It is evident that no one will throw in his fortunes with a departing Government.”—[Ibid., p. 162.]
In reply, Sir Evelyn Baring directed him to stay at Khartoum, pending instructions from Her Majesty’s Government.
Then Lord Granville telegraphs to Sir Edward Malet—though we are in doubt as to how many of these telegrams readied General Gordon—stating that Her Majesty’s Government declined to send either troops or Zebehr. He goes on to say—
“If General Gordon is of opinion that the prospect of his early departure diminishes the chance of accomplishing his task, and that by staying at Khartoum himself for any length of time which he may judge necessary he would be able to establish a settled Government, he is at liberty to remain there. In the event of his being unable to carry out this suggestion, he should evacuate Khartoum, and save that garrison by conducting it himself to Berber without delay.”—[Ibid.]
Then, on the 16th, Sir Evelyn Baring comes to the front and tells Her Majesty’s Government that—
“It has now become of the utmost importance not only to open the road between Suakin and Berber, but to come to terms with the tribes between Berber and Khartoum.”—[Ibid., p. 165.]
What is the reply? On the 16th Earl Granville says—
“Her Majesty’s Government are unable to authorize any advance of British troops in the direction of Berber until they have received further information with regard to the military conditions of such an expedition, and are satisfied that it is necessary in order to secure the safety of General Gordon… If General Gordon agrees with you that the difficulty of establishing a settled Government will increase rather than diminish with time, there can be no advantage in his remaining, and he should, as soon as is practicable, take steps for the evacuation of Khartoum.”—[Ibid., p. 166.]
In the whole of these telegrams from General Gordon, I venture to assert that there is not a single trace of a desire for aggression. What he wishes to do is simply this—to place himself in the only position in which, Zebehr having been refused to him, he could carry out the orders of Her Majesty’s Government to rescue the garrisons. He required material help to maintain himself at Khartoum, to bring out the more distant garrisons, and even, as time ad- vanced, to evacuate Khartoum itself. For the matter is now reduced to this. On the 24th of March Sir Evelyn Baring telegraphs to Her Majesty’s Government—
“It appears to me that under the present circumstances General Gordon will not be able to carry out your Lordship’s instructions, although those instructions involve the abandonment of the Sennaar garrison on the Blue Nile, and the garrisons of Bahr Gazelle and Gondokoro, on the White Nile. The question now is, how to get General Gordon and Colonel Stewart away from Khartoum? In considering this question, it should he remembered that they will not willingly come hack without bringing with them the garrison of Khartoum and the Government officials…Unless any unforeseen circumstances should occur to change the situation, only two solutions appear to be possible. The first is to trust General Gordon’s being able to maintain himself at Khartoum till the autumn. …. This he might, perhaps, be able to do, but it, of course, involves running a great risk.”
How great the risk is we see now. The despatch goes on to say—
“The only other plan is to send a portion of General Graham’s army to Berber with instructions to open up communication with Khartoum…General Gordon is evidently expecting help from Suakin, and he has ordered messengers to be sent along the road from Berber to ascertain whether any English force is advancing. Under present circumstances, I think that an effort should be made to help Gordon from Suakin, if it is at all a possible military operation.”
Was it a possible military operation? The despatch continues—
“General Stephenson and Sir Evelyn Wood, whilst admitting the very great risk to the health of the troops, besides the extraordinary military risks, are of opinion that the undertaking is possible.”—[Ibid., p. 186.]
Of course, there would have been risk to the health of the troops. But what does Sir Evelyn Baring himself say on this subject? When it was proposed to move English soldiers to Assouan, Sir Evelyn Baring, on February 28, used these words—
“I have only to say that we have undertaken the responsibility of preserving tranquillity in Egypt, and that it is impossible to execute the task without exposing our troops to whatever risks the climatic influences involve.”—[Ibid p. 116.]
Then we find, again, in the despatch of March 24—
“General Stephenson and Sir Evelyn Wood think that General Graham should be further consulted.”—[Ibid., p. 186.]
But was he consulted? Did Her Majesty’s Government ask Graham, to un- dertake an expedition from Suakin to Berber? I do not believe they ever put it to him. We have no evidence of the fact; but on the 18th of March we have a telegram from General Graham—
“Present position of affairs is that two heavy blows have been struck at rebels and followers of the Mahdi, who are profoundly discouraged. They say, however, that English troops can do no more; must re-embark and leave the country to them; to follow up these victories and bring waverers to our side we should not proclaim our intention of leaving, but rather make a demonstration of an advance towards Berber, and induce a belief that we can inarch anywhere we please.”—[Ibid., p. 176.]
Now, Sir, I believe that if General Graham had been instructed to send the kind of forces that General Gordon desired to Berber it would have been found that such a force could have marched wherever they pleased. What does General Gordon himself say a few weeks later? He affirms that the insurrection at Khartoum had spread; but he urges that it is a trumpery insurrection that 500 determined men could put down. What is the reply of Her Majesty’s Government to Sir Evelyn Baring’s recommendation? I do not think that a more heartless despatch ever was written than that of the 25th of March; and yet that one, like the previous despatch, was sent openly, so that the news that Her Majesty’s Government did not intend to relieve General Gordon was in the possession of all his enemies, whether it reached him or not. The despatch says as follows: —
“Having regard to the dangers of the climate of the Soudan at this time of the year, as well as the extraordinary risk from a military point of view, Her Majesty’s Government do not think it justifiable to send a British expedition to Berber, and they wish to communicate this decision to General Gordon in order that he may adopt measures in accordance therewith. Her Majesty’s Government desire to leave full discretion to General Gordon to remain at Khartoum if he thinks it necessary, or to retire by the southern or any other route which may be found available.”—[Egypt, No. 13 (1884), P. 1.]
What does that mean? It means simply this—”We know you are in difficulties and in want of help, but we will not help you ourselves; we will not tell you what to do. You may stay in the trap if you like, or you may leave it as best you can; by yourself if you choose, or, if you are able, taking those who have trusted you along with you.” I will venture to say that a more disgraceful suggestion than the suggestion to a British soldier and a Christian hero that he should desert those who had placed themselves in peril for his sake was never made by a British Government. What sort of opinion has General Gordon himself of such a suggestion? What does he say on the 3rd of March? He says—
“Pray do not consider me in any way to advocate retention of the Soudan; I am quite averse to it, but you must see that you could not recall me, nor could I possibly obey until the Cairo employés get out from all the places. I have named men to different places, thus involving- them with the Mahdi; how could I look the world in the face if I abandoned them and fled? As a gentleman, could you advise this course? It may have been a mistake to send me up, but having been done, I have no option but to see evacuation through, for even if I was mean enough to escape, I have no power to do so. You can easily understand this; would you do so?”—[Egypt, No. 12 (1884), p. 156.]
Would any hon. Member do so if he were in General Gordon’s place, except those who sit on the Treasury Bench? Then, later on, we have that well-known telegram of April 16, in which General Gordon says—
“As far as I can understand, the situation is this—You state your intention of not sending any relief up here or to Berber, and you refuse me Zebehr. I consider myself free to act according to circumstances. I shall hold on here as long as I can, and if I can suppress the rebellion I shall do so. If I cannot, I shall retire to the Equator, and leave you the indelible disgrace of abandoning the garrisons of Sennaar, Kassala, Berber, and Dongola, with the certainty that you will eventually be forced to smash up the Mahdi under great difficulties if you would retain peace in Egypt.”
Did any British Government ever receive such a telegram from one in their employment without the power of resenting it? And why have they not got that power? Because they know full well that the country agrees with General Gordon. So all help is refused, and that prophecy of Gordon’s is fulfilled which, on the 7th of March, was published in The Times newspaper—
“Be sure of one thing; if Her Majesty’s Government do not act promptly, Graham’s victory will go for naught, and, with the useless expenditure of blood, the effect of it will evaporate.”
Now we find how the net begins to close around him. On the 17th of March he is described as defending himself against the rebels around Khartoum with soldiers who are defeated simply because they do not desire to fight. On the 25th we hear of two Pashas being executed for treason, and General Gordon receives a hostile and insolent message from the Mahdi. On the 7th of April comes the first news of danger to Berber. On the 19th the massacre of the garrison at Shendy takes place, and on the 20th Sir Evelyn Baring reports that unless there is some prospect of help held out to Hussein Khalifa, there is risk that he will be thrown into the arms of the rebels, which would seriously affect Gordon’s position; and yet, on the 24th of April, having heard all this on the 22nd, the Prime Minister actually told the House of Commons that there had been no essential change in the position of General Gordon in consequence of the fall of Berber. I think that that is not an unfair instance of the extraordinary way in which, for weeks past, Parliament and the country have been misled by the obstinately optimist ideas of the Prime Minister and his Colleagues. Of course, I do not question that those right hon. Gentlemen believe what they told Parliament; but I find it absolutely impossible to understand how they can have derived from these published despatches, or from any confidential Papers in their possession— which, indeed, I fear are more likely to show a worse side of the case—impressions so diametrically opposed to those which, I venture to say, any unbiased mind must have derived from the perusal of these despatches. On the 21st of April Her Majesty’s Government at last discover that the danger at Berber appears to be imminent, and to suggest —and this is almost the only suggestion they have made—negotiations. On the 23rd the Governor of Berber reports that all the country is joining the Mahdi, and asks for troops, which obviously could not then be sent to Berber in time, inasmuch as, in the opinion of Her Majesty’s Government themselves, it would take 16 weeks to perform the journey.
Now comes the last telegram, which is a most remarkable one. I do not wish to do any injustice to Her Majesty’s Government. I am going to make an admission. Her Majesty’s Government are charged in many quarters with wilfully abandoning General Gordon. The admission I am going to make is this—that the Prime Minister has admitted to the full the obligation of Her Majesty’s Government to provide for General Gordon’s safety; but, unfortunately, in spite of all the proofs that the net has closed around him, Her Majesty’s Government, and first of all the Prime Minister, absolutely refuse to recognise that the General is in any danger at all. Why, Sir, on the 3rd of May the Prime Minister told the House that there was no military danger threatening Khartoum. But what did General Gordon himself think of his position? A month ago this bravest of soldiers telegraphed to Her Majesty’s Government—”God willing, I will never be taken alive.” Would General Gordon have used those words if he had recognised that there was no danger in his position? What are the facts? I have no doubt that we shall be told that Khartoum is amply supplied with provisions, although even that point does not now seem absolutely clear. My noble Friend near me asked this evening about a despatch from Sir Evelyn Baring relating to this matter, from which it is perfectly obvious that some material facts connected with this subject are not known to the House. It may be; and from the words of that despatch I fear it is only too likely that after all “the sufficient supply of provisions” at Khartoum is not more than enough to last to the end of the current month. But granted, if you like, that Khartoum is sufficiently provisioned until the autumn, famine is not the principal danger with which Khartoum is threatened. The principal danger which besets General Gordon is not famine, nor even, the attacks of the insurgents outside; but it is treachery within the town. The House will remember that a considerable number of the soldiers whom General Gordon sent down to Berber went over in a body to the insurgents. The House will remember that, when called upon to fight against the insurgents, General Gordon’s own soldiers were defeated simply because they declined to fight. The House will remember that General Gordon had to execute two Pashas for treason, who, of course, had friends in the garrison; while, if the last report be true, General Gordon has had to fortify himself within his own town against the disaffected part of the population. If it should happen that his position becomes so dangerous that he may wish to escape with his friends by the river, what chance has he of effecting such an escape? The Nile is low, and the insurgents have not only rifles, but they have artillery. They have six guns, besides the Krupp gun which they captured from General Gordon, which was said to have been spiked, but which we have since heard was not permanently injured. This constitutes a formidable danger to any chance of escape which General Gordon might have had. Yet, in the face of these facts, what are the terms of the telegram of the 23rd of April?
General Gordon, who is in this position, is asked in that telegram by Her Majesty’s Government to inform them, in reply to a question which will probably never reach him, not only as to any immediate, but as to any prospective danger to Khartoum. General Gordon, beleaguered in Khartoum by hosts of enemies, bound there even more strongly by those feelings of honour of which Her Majesty’s Ministers never seem to think, is asked to state to Her Majesty’s Government the cause and intention with which he continues in Khartoum. General Gordon, who cannot know anything that is passing outside Khartoum, except from the merest rumours, is asked to advise those who have never yet taken his advice as to the force necessary to secure his removal from Khartoum, the condition of the roads, and the proper time for the operation. Could anything exceed the cruel irony of that telegram? If anything could add to the astonishment and disgust with which it has been read by the country, surely it would be the concluding words expressing respect and gratitude to General Gordon for his gallant self-sacrifice and for the good he has achieved. What is the value of that respect and gratitude? This is a matter which cannot be trifled with by the Government.
I believe that the people of this country are determined, whatever Her Majesty’s Government may think of General Gordon’s position and claims upon them, that not a hair of his head shall perish, and that he shall be saved with those who have trusted in him. To rescue him you must rescue them also. What are Her Majesty’s Government going to do? It is not for me to suggest the course which they should take. What I have undertaken, however imperfectly, to show to the House is how, by their own conduct, by their own inaction, when action was possible, they have brought things to such a pass that it is difficult indeed for anyone to know how to carry out that which we all, I hope, desire to accomplish. There is one thing which Her Majesty’s Government ought to have done weeks ago, and which they ought to do, if it be not too late, to-night, and that is to proclaim, their determination that General Gordon shall be rescued; and they ought to follow up that statement by taking actual steps to place themselves in a position to carry out their intention— peacefully, by all means, if possible; but by warlike means if the work cannot be done without military co-operation. I venture to say that every hour of delay will only increase the danger of General Gordon, the difficulties of Her Majesty’s Government, and a still graver risk, because it is a risk of wider scope than anything that can happen to General Gordon himself. Sir, there is a very old quotation which I should not think of inflicting upon the House did it not contain a moral which, it seems to me, is never present to the minds of Her Majesty’s Government. It runs as follows: —
“Principiis obsta; seró medicina paratur
Cum mala per longas convaluere moras.”
As individuals, Her Majesty’s Government are men of decision and action; but collectively they are cursed with this fatal curse—that they are never able to make up their minds in time. It was but the other day that the Prime Minister pointed out to Parliament the success which General Gordon had achieved in putting a stop to the onward movement of the troops of the Mahdi. That statement was perfectly true. The personal influence of General Gordon did achieve, for a time, very material success in this direction. I believe that if General Gordon had been supplied with material assistance, at a time when it could have been sent to him at a comparatively small risk, he would have been enabled absolutely to stem, at Khartoum, that wave of religious fanaticism and social anarchy which we call the movement of the Mahdi. But what is the position now? General Gordon lies helpless and beleaguered at Khartoum. The advancing tide has surrounded him. It has overwhelmed Berber; it is rapidly approaching Dongola, although its approach is concealed by the euphemistic words of the Under Secretary, who said that near Dongola there is a very considerable movement among the population. Notwithstanding this, all that we have heard of any preparations for meeting this rapidly-advancing and terrible danger is that two or three battalions of the Egyptian Army may possibly be despatched to Upper Egypt, and a rumour that Her Majesty’s Government intend to send a great British expedition to Egypt in October. Why, Sir, if the recent news be true, long before October our small British garrison in Lower Egypt may be fighting for their lives. This danger must be stemmed somewhere. It is a duty incumbent upon us by reason of our position in Egypt, and a duty the fulfilment of which will rightly be exacted from us by the whole of the civilised world.
Have Her Majesty’s Government the faintest conception of their responsibility in this matter? In the debate which took place on the Motion of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in February last, some right hon. Gentlemen sitting on the other side of the House, who were naturally anxious to find a reason for supporting Her Majesty’s Government, told us that they would give their votes on the side against which they spoke, because they believed that the policy of hesitation which the Government had up to that time pursued had been discarded, and that energetic action had taken its place. I should like to know whether the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ripon (Mr. Goschen), or the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster) are quite satisfied, after reading these despatches, that the expectation which they then formed has been fulfilled? I am quite aware that votes on a Motion such as that which it is my duty to propose are often decided by a feeling of general confidence in the Government of the day, which it is now, perhaps, somewhat difficult to justify, and which, therefore, is more likely to be privately entertained than openly avowed. It is a remarkable circumstance, however, that, either in or out of this House, it has been impossible up to this time to find any expression of complete approval of the policy of Her Majesty’s Government in the particular matter which it is my duty to bring before the House.
The hon. Baronet the Member for Carlisle (Sir Wilfrid Lawson) may be congratulated upon the fact that he has, for once in a way, been able to formulate a proposition with which everyone in the House must agree. We must all, of course, regret with the hon. Baronet that General Gordon has not yet succeeded in bringing to a successful conclusion the mission which he has undertaken; but I do not think Her Majesty’s Government will be able to agree with the rest of the hon. Baronet’s Motion — I mean the part in which he asks the House to express its objection to any course which will involve the taking of any military steps in connection with General Gordon’s mission — for the Government have already admitted their obligation to provide for the safety of General Gordon. Then comes the Amendment which has been put upon the Paper by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Sir George Campbell). The phrases of the hon. Member are a little involved, as is not unusual; but, as far as I can understand, what the hon. Member means is that General Gordon should be ordered to abandon the expedition on which he has embarked, and to abandon also those with whom, and in defence of whom, he has stated his determination to remain at Khartoum. Her Majesty’s Government have been competent to suggest such an abandonment; but I do not think that even they would venture to order it. Then the hon. Gentleman the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Heneage) begins with a censure on Her Majesty’s Government, for he expresses his regret that General Gordon has not been recalled. He goes on, however, to express his confidence that Her Majesty’s Government will take all possible measures to insure the safety of Generals Gordon and Stewart. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his confidence; all the more because the only basis on which it can be founded is, that they failed to take steps in time to relieve the abandoned garrison of Sinkat, and that they have themselves declined, in the despatch of April 23, to recognize the danger of General Gordon, or to do anything to relieve him until they receive information, which there is hardly any chance of their being able to obtain. We do not ask that Her Majesty’s Government should undertake an impossible task; but we do ask, and I will venture to say the country demands, that Her Majesty’s Government shall not call measures impossible simply because they are unwilling or afraid to try them. The Motion which I make cannot, I believe, be met by the Prime Minister with any comments, however free, upon the repeated Votes of Censure which have been brought forward in Parliament, or be put aside by appeals to that popular feeling which it is very difficult to excite in favour of a more rapid progress with the legislative proposals of the Government. No, Sir; the Motion can only be met by Her Majesty’s Government undertaking and proving that they will leave no stone unturned to avert from this country the intolerable stain which would be left upon her honour by any injury inflicted upon General Gordon, and that they at last have made up their minds, in a moment of supreme difficulty, to do what they ought to have done long ago—namely, to grasp this Egyptian Question boldly, as becomes the Government of the Queen. Sir, if the Prime Minister cannot satisfy the country upon these points, I will venture to prophesy that in spite of his great career, and in spite of his commanding abilities, he will not long escape the condemnation of an outraged people. The right hon. Baronet concluded by moving the Resolution, of which he had given Notice.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
“That this House regrets to find that the course pursued by Her Majesty’s Government has not tended to promote the success of General Gordon’s Mission, and that even such steps as may be necessary to secure his personal safety are still delayed.”—(Sir Michael Hicks-Beach.)